Virginia coach Mike London paused for a minute, as if he was trying to measure his words, and then smiled like he was throwing caution to the wind.
Virginia had just finished off a 24-21 victory against No. 12 Georgia Tech, a triumph that caused several thousand fans to stream onto the field, and he was enjoying the feeling.
”This is one of those wins that can change the perception of what you think about yourself,” the second-year coach said. ”Last-second play against Indiana. Last-second play against Idaho. Overtime. But this is one of those wins against a good team with a lot of accomplishments that you can try to turn the corner on, about how you think about yourself.”
And the Cavaliers, given two weeks to prepare, beat the Yellow Jackets at their own game.
Perry Jones ran for 149 of Virginia’s 272 yards on the ground and the Cavaliers slowed Georgia Tech’s triple option better than anyone has all season, limiting it to 296 yards.
”It’s probably the hardest we’ve prepared for a game and the results showed,” senior cornerback Chase Minnifield said of the extra time to get ready a bye week allowed.
”Without that second week, we might not have had the same result,” he said.
The Cavaliers (4-2, 1-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) sealed the victory by holding onto the ball for the final 6 minutes, making five first downs to get inside the Yellow Jackets’ 5.
But they didn’t need to score, and when quarterback Michael Rocco took a knee for a 3-yard loss on the game’s final play, thousand of fans surged onto the field at Scott Stadium.
”People in the past have basically put us on the backburner, put us to the side,” said Jones, whose yardage came on just 18 carries. ”I’m glad we came out with a statement victory.”
Georgia Tech (6-1, 3-1), off to its best start since 1966, came in with one of the nation’s top offenses, but as Maryland did last week in a narrow loss, Virginia tried to force quarterback Tevin Washington to beat them. He carried 26 times for 115 yards and two TDs.
”That was kind of the gameplan, to make him keep the ball,” linebacker Steve Greer said.
Washington completed just 2 of 8 passes for 24 yards, threw a costly interception late in the first half leading to the decisive field goal and accepted the blame for the loss afterward.
”As the offense, I take full responsibility on that because we had a chance to come back and win the game on those last two drives and we sputtered,” he said. Georgia Tech’s final offensive play was a 2-yard run that was stopped by Greer third-and-14 from the Yellow Jackets’ 40.
Kevin Parks ran for one touchdown for Virginia, Rocco hit Tim Smith for a 37-yarder and Clifton Richardson had a 22-yard run, all in the first half, as Virginia built a 24-14 lead.
One of the keys, London said, was the Cavaliers’ response after the Yellow Jackets tied the game with two touchdowns 98 seconds apart. It was 8:24 before halftime, and Virginia answered with a 72-yard drive, freshman Clifton Richardson running it in from the 22 yard-line.
”It was huge because the mindset in the past has been, ‘Oh no, here we go again,”’ London said. ”On the sideline, in the huddle, the confidence was unbelievable and we haven’t had that.”
Georgia Tech almost struck very quickly to start the second half, with Tevin Washington running 85 yards on the first play from scrimmage, but the play was called back by a penalty.
The Yellow Jackets then did it the hard way, using 19 plays and converting two fourth-and-1 plays and a fourth-and-5 before Washington scored on a 1-yard run. The fourth-and-5 was initially a fourth-and-10, but defensive tackle Nick Jenkins was called for being offsides, and Washington ran for 23 yards on the next play to the Cavaliers’ 5. He scored two plays later.
The teams traded punts the rest of the way until Virginia took over at its 23 with just under 6 minutes left. Jones started with runs of 11 and eight yards, caught an 18-yard pass from Rocco to convert a third-and-6 from the Virginia 49 and the Cavaliers never gave it up.
Virginia gained 407 yards against former coach Al Groh’s 3-4 defense.
The Yellow Jackets erased a 14-0 deficit with two touchdowns in 98 seconds in the second quarter. Washington capped an 80-yard drive with a 7-yard touchdown run, and Rod Sweeting intercepted a Rocco pass three plays later and returned in 32 yards for the tying touchdown.
Freshman David Watford came on at quarterback for one series for Virginia, and led a 72-yard scoring drive with a big assist from Richardson, also a freshman. He bulled his way for a first down on third-and-1, and also carried it the last 22 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.
When Minnifield intercepted a deep pass by Washington on the ensuing series, Rocco came back and led them 41 yards in eight plays to Robert Randolph’s decisive 36-yard field goal.
Virginia struck quickly at the start with two touchdowns in the first 8:20.
”They couldn’t have scripted a better start,” coach Paul Johnson said.
The Cavaliers drove 73 yards after the opening kickoff, a drive kept alive by Rocco’s 14-yard pass to Jones on third-and-4 from the Yellow Jackets’ 42 and his 8-yard pass to Tim Smith on third-and-3 from the 23. Two plays later, Parks took it in from the 6, his seventh score.
The Yellow Jackets were penalized twice on their opening series, riling up the small crowd at Scott Stadium, and when Rocco hit Smith for 37 yards and a 14-0 lead, it got really loud.